Of all the developmental tasks that we hope our growing child will successfully master, none is more demanding on the growing parent than the child’s learning to express painful feelings.
We tell ourselves that we want him to feel free to tell us when he is angry, or sad, or frustrated, or annoyed. We are hopeful that if he acquires a complete feelings vocabulary, he will be able to cope with these emotions. We want this so much that we even have a chart of them posted on our refrigerator, stuck with a magnet at his eye level, illustrated with cartoon faces.
The cartoon labeled SURPRISED has eyes as round as and two-thirds the size of its circular face; the cartoon expressing FURIOUS has gritted teeth and eyes reduced to slits; the one designated EXHAUSTED has its tongue hanging out one corner of its mouth, and more.
Feelings on the Fly
We faithfully practice using these words ourselves. When our child has a temper tantrum in the grocery store, we hold our own emotions in check while we intone, “Are you feeling ANGRY that Mommy won’t buy you the cereal with the chocolate chips and marshmallows in it? But you see, Mommy is feeling WORRIED that if you eat that kind of cereal, you won’t grow up to be healthy and strong.”
Coming to Grips with Painful Feelings
But then comes the inevitable day when our child breaks our heart with her grief over her goldfish dying, or her best friend abandoning her, or her inability to stay vertical on a pair of roller skates no matter how hard she tries. And we want to instantly rush in and fix it, wipe away the tears, offer a new goldfish, a different friend, an ice cream cone, whatever it takes to make her stop telling us how sad she is. Even worse is when the grief, or fear, or a combination, has been caused by something we ourselves have done that’s a little more significant than denying her a particular brand of breakfast cereal: leaving her all day in a day care center, perhaps, or moving the family to another house, or presenting her with a baby brother. Then we want to tell her how to feel, to move quickly to the other side of the feelings chart, to JOYFUL and PROUD and EXCITED.
We Just Want Him to be Happy
At least we want the experts to keep their promise, that if we approach potentially stressful events such as a new baby or a move with lots of talk about how the child might feel sad or angry, then the child will immediately start feeling better. Our instinct is to protect him from all harm, from all painful feelings. We cannot bear to watch him suffer, certainly not for a protracted period of time. So we become frustrated when all our talk about emotions doesn’t seem to “work.” The baby is six weeks old already, and big brother is still uncharacteristically moody. We moved a month ago, and he’s still bursting into tears at nothing. Our child’s painful emotions can sometimes be harder for us to endure than our own.
Words Won’t Make the Feelings Disappear
The developmental stage we’re talking about here is, in fact, not our child’s, but ours. As parents, we need to learn to tolerate the emotions that our child’s feelings evoke in us. First of all we need to realize that expressing and managing feelings is not the same thing as eradicating them. Painful feelings will remain painful no matter what we say, no matter how we encourage our child to talk about them. They are his feelings for him to own and live with, and we cannot get rid of them for him, nor should we try. The point of our child learning to use the words on the feelings chart is not to overcome them, but to express them more exactly and satisfyingly than he might otherwise. If he can tell us how much he misses his old house, he might not need to crayon all over the freshly painted walls in his new bedroom. If he can express his jealousy verbally, he might not be as likely to pinch his baby brother when we’re not looking. But he still will feel bewilderment or loneliness or discouragement or rage. It’s still going to hurt.
We Can’t Feel For, But We Can Feel With
Second of all, as difficult as it might be for us, we need to give our child time to grieve, to cry, to express his anger and disappointment, without rushing in with solutions. Careful listening and questioning may help if the source of his unhappiness is not altogether clear. If we can outgrow our desire to fix everything for him and instead be so in tune with his feelings that we can help him identify them, he will have a clearer idea of what he’s feeling than any cartoon face could possibly illustrate. He most needs from us what we as adults most need when we are despondent or anxious: a willing ear, some empathic understanding, an arm around the shoulder, a hug. Being felt with can make all the difference.